In this April 26, 2021, file photo, heavy machinery is used to cut trees to widen an existing Central Maine Power power line corridor to make way for new utility poles near Bingham, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

A hearing Monday on suspending a key permit for the controversial hydropower line through western Maine drew heated debate about whether developers have operated too aggressively despite legal challenges or whether pulling the permit will discourage future investment.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection heard from NECEC Transmission, the Central Maine Power Co. affiliate running the $1 billion project, and others on both sides of the corridor dispute. They were scheduled to hear public comment in the evening.

The stakes are high for all involved. Opponents told the DEP the project already is harming the environment, and the company continued its fast-paced construction despite legal and regulatory challenges. NECEC Transmission said halting the project puts hundreds of jobs on the line and stalling it too long could jeopardize the hydropower line. If the DEP negates the route, other state approvals would unravel.

The agency is reconsidering the project after a judge found the state had no authority to grant leases on public land in rural Somerset County. But state officials started the meeting by noting that there has been a change in circumstances for the permit because of the referendum rejecting the corridor that voters passed on Nov. 2.

NECEC continued work on the project the next day, but it agreed Friday to temporarily stop construction just after Gov. Janet Mills, a corridor backer, requested it do so to “give deference to the will of the voters” while the courts and the DEP consider challenges.

CMP and its affiliates will honor the construction suspension at least until the business court acts on its motion for a preliminary injunction against the referendum, NECEC Transmission President Thorn Dickinson told the DEP hearing.

He said if the injunction is not granted, NECEC will make a decision at that point on what to do next. But “we would absolutely continue not to construct” in that case, Dickinson said.

Continued delays will be costly, he said. The corridor is scheduled to go live by August 2024. If delays push work past that date, NECEC will have to pay more than $10 million to extend its contract by one year.

Anti-corridor intervenor Jeffrey Reardon, director of the anti-corridor Maine Brook Trout Project, said the corridor construction already is damaging the woods and wildlife habitat and must be stopped until the DEP is certain the project clears other hurdles and can be completed. NECEC is looking for alternate routes for a one-mile stretch of the project on public land. Reardon said the DEP must act soon because another 100 workers are scheduled to join the current 400 starting in January.

Edwin Buzzell, owner of Kennebec Kayak Paddling Center in The Forks and a corridor opponent, said he saw environmental damage during a trip to the work area on Saturday, presenting photos and video showing trees and brush cut to the ground rather than tapered in some prescribed areas and cleared to the edge of Cold Stream in The Forks.

The daytime session of the DEP hearing ended with Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, warning of a chilling effect if the DEP pulls the permit.

“A permit granted provides authorization to proceed,” Connors said. “This would send a signal that the state does not honor its permits.”